Witless Bay council sends another councillor to a 'Friendly Hearing'

Witless Bay council has voted to give a third councillor a ‘Friendly Hearing’ on a charge of conflict of interest as it serves formal notice to two other councillors that their seats have been vacated.
Councillor Kevin Smart is accused of having voted to adopt Witless Bay’s new Town Plan, which rezones land he owns within the community.
No date was set for the hearing, which is required under the Municipalities Act when a councillor is accused of failing to disclose a conflict of interest.
Husband and wife councillors Ralph Carey and Dena Wiseman were fired from council last month for failing to disclose they own land on Pond Path when they participated in a discussion last summer about the town providing snow clearing services on the private lane.
Like Smart, they were also accused by developers and land owners of breaking conflict of interest rules when they voted on the Town Plan, because it rezones their land off Pond Path to allow for housing development.
Tuesday’s meeting also saw council tussle over whether councillor Albert Murphy can vote on the Town Plan, which has been sent back from the province  because of irregularities in the way it was handled by council.
Several meetings ago Mayor Sébastien Després moved preemptively  to declare Murphy in a conflict of interest because Murphy’s brother-in-law, Ron Harte, applied several years ago to have land below Mullowney’s Lane rezoned to allow a building lot for his daughter. At the time, council rejected his application. Després, Wiseman, Carey and Smart also passed amendments to make all the Crown land around Harte, and another property owner, Gary Churchill, into a park or conservation zone to prevent any development in the area.
The Department of Municipal Affairs has since ruled that council didn’t follow proper procedure in making those and other amendments to the proposed Town Plan. Council has written Harte telling him his land will retain its old zoning. That led councillors René Estrada and Ken Brinston to argue last week that because Harte’s land is not being rezoned, Després had no grounds to rule Murphy was in a conflict of interest.
“I hate to say this, but you’re in the wrong there,” Estrada told Després.
The mayor disagreed, claiming it is a “classic” example of conflict of interest. He challenged Estrada to make a motion to overturn his ruling. Estrada complied. But with only four councillors left to vote on the motion, it tied 2-2.
“The motion fails,” said Després. “Councillor Murphy is in a conflict of interest.”
The decision means that unless council quickly fills the two vacant seats left by the departure of Carey and Wiseman, it will not have a quorum to vote on the Town Plan, because only Després, Estrada and Brinston are not in a conflict of interest. The town was under an order from the Department of Municipal Affairs to approve the Plan by July 15 or call a new public hearing on it.
“Where does this leave us?” asked councillor Brinston, who along with Murphy was elected in a by-election in late February and sworn into office in March.
“We’ve been in this situation before actually, councillor Estrada and I,” Després noted. He said the town can ask the Minister of Municipal Affairs for permission to allow three people to vote on the Town Plan. “But I would like to make it shown in the record that I am actually opposed to voting as a reduced quorum.”
That remark drew laughter since it was Després, when the accusations against Smart, Carey and Wiseman were made last fall, who claimed he had received permission from the Department to settle the accusations without a quorum. Correspondence between the town and the Department surfaced later showing the mayor’s request was denied. Instead, council had been directed to fill the two vacancies it had as soon as possible so it could have a quorum.
On Tuesday, Després reversed tack, seemingly taking up the department’s ruling of last fall and adopting it as his own. “The last two times we asked the minister he made it very clear there is a way for us to gain quorum,” said Després. “It’s by holding a by-election.”
Murphy cautioned that council should hold off calling a by-election until the period expires for Wiseman and Carey to appeal the vacating of their seats.
“They have appealed it,” Després said.
“We (the rest of council) weren’t aware that they appealed it,” Murphy said.

Posted on July 24, 2015 .